Not in My Wheelhouse: Slow West
Welcome to “Not in My Wheelhouse,” a weekly column in which one of our staff members recommends a movie to another that is outside of their cinematic comfort zone! See other entries in the series here.
Slow West (2015). Written and directed by John Maclean. Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, Caren Pistorius, and Michael Fassbender. Recommended by Dan Scully as an example of an atypical Western.
How Far Outside Of My Wheelhouse Is Slow West?
Westerns have always been one of my most disliked genres in cinema. I actively avoid the classic cowboy romps and Spaghetti Westerns. Why? I honestly just have a hard time engaging with them and often find them to be boring. Which is a hilarious critique on my part, because the two major caveats that come along with that are The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971). Two somewhat meandering and beautiful films that I believe fit snugly in the genre, but do their part in turning it on its head. Clearly it would be imprudent of me to write off an entire genre, so volunteering this blindspot seemed important for me.
Despite being a huge Fassbender fan, I somehow had never heard of Slow West before I watched it. Probably because the words "slow" and "west" being put together is a surefire way for me to ignore a movie. When I put forward Westerns for this project I was dreading having to sit through a Clint Eastwood classic, but I was hopeful that I wouldn't be so senselessly tortured. When I got my assignment and looked into it, I was relieved and even excited. After a quick peek at the trailer I was certain that this was a Western I'd be able to easily get behind. I was also delighted to learn that the director John Maclean was also a part of The Beta Band. But as I mentioned, I had never heard of this film, so I had zero preconceived notions going into it.
Dan described this film as a "dreamy Western," which I think is an excellent way to think about it. This dreamy atmosphere ties into what I think is Slow West's most impressive aspect: its cinematography. Robbie Ryan is an exceptionally talented cinematographer, known for his work in Fish Tank (2009), Wuthering Heights (2011), American Honey (2016), and of course, most recently, The Favourite (2018). Pretty impressive, right? I remember seeing Wuthering Heights in theaters and walking away thinking both that I hated the film and that it was one of the most beautiful, atmospheric films I had ever seen. That's a really strong inner contradiction for me to have after a movie, and I really can't think of many other films like that. I even own the Blu-Ray. That's a real testament to how talented this DP is, and his other work really speaks for itself. Indeed, Slow West is a beautiful movie. The colors, sounds, textures, and light all work together at creating palpable moments. You can almost feel the wind whipping around you, or taste the dust floating around. Jed Kurzel's score is also beautiful, and adds to the film's dreamy aesthetic. This is all to say that the film is truly beautiful, and checks off my somewhat persnickety boxes when it comes to what Westerns I actually do like. Not an easy feat.
That being said, I walked away a little disappointed in the film's writing and plot. Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is traveling across America to find his love, Rose (Caren Pistorius). Outlaw Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) agrees to serve as a guide after learning that Rose and her father are wanted for a hefty reward. Jay also garners the attention of numerous bounty hunters, who are all clamoring for the reward. On paper, it's a very promising premise. Ultimately, for me, it fell short. Smit-McPhee did well enough with his leading role, but it was Fassbender who I felt was underused. We know well enough at this point that he has a very dynamic range. Here, though, his character felt very one-note and predictable. My main issue with the film is the ending. In typical Western fashion, it ends with a big shoot-out, where most people perish. In a slight twist, we also learn that Jay's love for Rose is not reciprocated. Maybe I just had the recent Damsel (2018) on my mind, but this really didn't come as a shock to me at all. Although Damsel took a much more comedic route to a similar plot, I wanted Slow West to go further than it did with its characters. Whereas the atmosphere came to life, I was disappointed that those within that realm remained cardboard.
My biggest takeaway from this is that the Western genre does have a lot of space in it. Like any genre really, there can be plenty of films that push the boundaries and appeal to even those who disdain the genre. I'm also fully aware that Slow West isn't an accurate representation of what a typical Western is. I can't say that this film made me want to seek out The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966) and the likes, but it does make me want to discover other hidden gems that toy with genre expectations.
Passing the Baton
I had a feeling Ryan would put forward Horror as his wheelhouse pick after I joined him and Jill for their first viewing of The Shining not too long ago. While I would have loved to throw that in the mix, I'm still excited I got to be there as two people saw it for the first time. Instead of going the classic horror route, I am suggesting the magnificent, utterly unsettling film The Babadook (2014), directed by Jennifer Kent. I cannot wait to hear what Ryan thinks!